Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Thursday, 23 February 2017

Catling on Neolithic Pembrokeshire

Quite a hefty article from Chris Catling in Current Archaeology for March 2017.  Thanks to Dave and Tony for bringing it to my attention.

It's a strange article -- part review of a chapter in the new Pembrokeshire County History volume, part report on what was said at the latest NPA Archaeology Day, and part opinion piece.  CC follows a line of argument from Tim Darvill -- namely that there has been too much stress in the past on "monument typologies" and not enough on the purposes and intentions on the builders -- in other words, what the monuments meant to the builders.  When  I read that, I thought:  "Here we go again.  Away with hard evidence -- let's have fun with fantasies instead....."

Were my misgivings borne out by what followed in the article?  Well, yes and no.  I liked the points about the diversity of Neolithic monuments, the need to adapt to local materials and locations, and to "show off" to the neighbours.  But I found the arguments about "propped rocks" or sub-Neolithic chambers, a bit strange -- and I'm not sure that it gets us anywhere to imagine that prehistoric men were seeking to imitate nature in their early stone settings -- on the basis that strange rock formations or arrangements might have been created not by nature but by some lost race of giants or gods.  It's just as likely that the Neolithic inhabitants of the Pembrokeshire landscape were perfectly indifferent with regard to rock outcrops, tumbled crags, erratics and scattered stones.  CC says that "many propped rocks occupy impressive settings"  -- you could just as well say, in my experience, that just as many of them do not.  As far as I am concerned, propped slabs occur all over the place, in places where slabs were found.  Perfectly simple.

Were monuments intended to be seen from afar?  This is a much discussed topic, and CC does not add anything new on this.  Were the simplest monuments "statements of occupation"?  Well, of course they were -- nothing very significant about that.  People built things on the land they occupied, then as now.  On dolmens with "lifted capstones" obviously much more labour was involved -- and of course there was more technical skill and more ambition.  Portal dolmens were more complex still.  There are some interesting points about the evolution and re-fashioning of monuments like Pentre Ifan over time, but the author seems uncertain whether the Pembrokeshire monuments arose out of a multitude of contacts with other parts of the Neolithic world, or whether (as TD seems to be arguing) each one is essentially unique.

Were the monuments set into sacred and secular zones, as Prof MPP has argued?  In partial answer to that, CC argues that some megalithic monuments in Pembrokeshire are set into the landscape "as counterpoints to natural features".  He cites Garn Turne and Carn Bica  as being counterpoints, where natural features have been enhanced and modified.  I disagree completely with this fanciful search for significance -- you could just as well use similar language for any construction in any landscape.  Portal tombs, he says, look out over sea and mountain.  Of course they do -- where else are they supposed to look?

CC repeats the hoary old myth (invented by Darvill and Wainwright) that there is a strong association between megaliths and springs in Pembrokeshire and that this is the basis of the "healing bluestones" fantasy.  There is no such association, and I wish people would stop repeating it uncritically.

CC then comes on to the Neolithic preference for particular rock types, and claims that there was an "astonishing" knowledge of geology, with Neolithic geologists travelling vast distances to source preferred stones.  But he does not adequately differentiate between tool manufacture and megalith building.  As far as I can see, in Pembrokeshire there has been NO preferential use of specific rocks in any of the types of dolmens found in the landscape.  Always, people used whatever was to hand in the vicinity.  That point has been made by many experienced archaeologists.

CC concludes "Rock in prehistory was something living and resonant with meaning", and argues that instead of collecting hard evidence and working on "typology" archaeologists should become more concerned with meanings and the search for significance.  Hmmm -- from where I stand, there is too much fantasy as it is, and we hardly need more of it.   This article really adds very little to what we knew already, but the illustrations are pleasant enough. 

Case dismissed for lack of evidence.


Myris of Alexandria said...

"Stonehenge may have been an agrarian calendar, a solar/lunar eclipse calculator, a proto-Lourdes, a charnel house, a back-drop to retro-Victorian theatrics, or indeed, all or none of these, but for the last 100, perhaps 300, years it has remained the premier archaeological zeitgeist indicator and that is clearly demonstrated in this book. For in the 21st century Stonehenge is morphing from an arithmetic automaton to something more fuzzy and less logical, seemingly with only the NE-SW solstice orientation remaining constant (even more than the northern star). It is ceasing to be an end in itself, becoming a cause, an urge and the ‘Stones’ a mere petrified representation of societies’ sweat.

A recent review of Pryor's book.

This move towards task-motivated (?inclusive) activity rather than towards monumental achievements plus a return to the centrality of hearth and home is now a Neolithic interpretive archaeological juggernaut only the Lord Siva can out-dance it.


BRIAN JOHN said...

I think we might be agreeing on something here, Myris!!

AG said...

One can only presume that a desire for a scenic setting is what prevented Neolithic man building anything of significance beneath sites such as the former NAAFI depot at Amesbury, Amesbury itself, and most of the large Military Camps that surround Stonehenge.

How prescient those druids were!

TonyH said...

The Amesbury Archer was buried near the river Avon. Not a particularly scenic setting. By all accounts, he may not even have had any kind of barrow to commemorate him to the hoi paloi. Yet his barrow was extremely rich. At least the primary schoolchildren, whose school site includes his last resting place**, remember him with pride and excitement.

** not counting Salisbury Museum

TonyH said...

Have you obtained your copy of the new Pembrokeshire County History volume yet, Brian?

BRIAN JOHN said...

I have a copy on order, Tony. Hope to pick it up next week.